Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo

A Tale of Disruption

I like working on old cars, and in particular, Chevy’s from the 1960’s which were cheap and plentiful when I was a teenager, learning the basics of auto mechanics on a get-your-hands-dirty basis. Cars of that era all had carburetors, which blend the fuel and air mixture that is fed into the engine for combustion. Carburetors (the name comes from the French word carbure, a reference to fuel chemistry) have been part of internal combustion engines from the outset, with a steady stream of incremental improvements and enhancements. By the late 1960’s, carburetors had reached their peak of mechanical complexity, and if you were working on cars of that era, the most fickle and complex part of the car was the carburetor. Those that could master their secrets and successfully make the many fine adjustments were the high priests of backyard mechanics.

Carburetors were not produced by the car companies, but by specialty carburetor manufacturers. It was a perfect example of competition in the marketplace relentlessly driving innovation and cost containment. It was a thriving industry. Today, however, carburetors have all but disappeared and the companies that once competed so aggressively are mostly gone. What happened? Disruption, that’s what happened. An entirely different way of combining fuel and air in the engine was developed: fuel injection, which made carburetors obsolete. Fuel injection is simpler, nearly trouble-free, and less expensive, so the car companies rapidly switched to fuel injection and the market for carburetors tanked.

How is 9-1-1 Being Disrupted?

There’s an analogous situation happening today in the 9-1-1 emergency calling systems, which began more than 50 years ago in the US. We are now in the transition to Next-Generation 9-1-1 across the country, which advances the system from telephone-only (and therefore voice-only) to an Internet-based system able to handle modern messaging (texting, for example), as well as transmitting photos and video. The term Next-Generation 9-1-1 implies that it represents an incremental improvement over the legacy 9-1-1 systems that precede it, but that implication is incorrect. Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) is actually a replacement to legacy 9-1-1 systems, not an upgrade.

Just as fuel injection is not an upgrade to a carburetor, but a disruptor that completely replaced carburetors, legacy 9-1-1 systems were architected around lookup tables to associate phone numbers with street addresses. That design, with lookup tables at the core, is the carburetor in legacy 9-1-1. When mobile phone use took off, many legacy 9-1-1 systems added a so-called “bolt-on” mapping component that could (most of the time) produce an approximate location of a wireless call, but this happened in addition to the phone number lookup, which would display to the 9-1-1 operator the registered home address of the mobile phone, in much the same way as a landline phone was displayed. But, even with an added mapping component, the core of a legacy 9-1-1 system contains no GIS, and therefore cannot take advantage of GIS capabilities. Rebuilding to incorporate GIS is just that, a complete system redesign. To take the carburetor analogy a step further, not only was fuel injection less expensive for the car companies, but it proved to be more reliable, more fuel efficient, and delivers better engine performance, as well. We’ll get a similar boost in capabilities in NG9-1-1 as a result of the new GIS-centric design.

GIS Makes 9-1-1 a Lot Better

It is hard to overstate the importance of GIS to NG9-1-1. The critical functions of a 9-1-1 distress call are driven entirely by GIS queries in NG9-1-1. The system receives the latitude/longitude coordinate representing the caller’s phone (thanks to specifications maintained by the FCC and implemented by all of the telecommunication carriers), and can therefore direct the call to the 9-1-1 answering point responsible for that location, and can identify critical context about that location (Is it a building? Along a road? A water body?) and can find the right police, fire, or EMS service to dispatch to the caller. These are fairly simple point-in-polygon GIS queries, but they are happening in the context of life and death response.

If you are a GIS professional, you can take pride in the fact that your discipline, once a humble niche practiced by a small number of folks on the fringes of mainstream IT, is now at the heart of the complete overhaul to our most important public safety system in the country. That’s no small thing. The GIS data that feeds that system probably originates in other local government offices that maintain GIS data as part of their normal business function. Getting the most value out of that data is critically important and is one of the reasons why government-sector GIS coordination programs exist. The town employee who assigns a new address to a new subdivision may not be thinking much beyond fulfilling his or her immediate responsibility, but that new address becomes a piece of critical GIS data that feeds multiple purposes, not least of which is ensuring that the 9-1-1 system contains an accurate map at its core, including the location of that new address.

The nature of disruptors is that they create a major disturbance, a reordering, and a period of rapid change before equilibrium resettles. That’s what’s happening today with NG9-1-1, just as it happened in my youth when fuel injection displaced carburetors. At least I can take solace in having some fairly useless knowledge about how to rebuild and adjust carburetors. I have a 1962 Chevy BelAir in my garage and I know what I’m doing when I adjust the carb. And if, heaven forbid, I injure myself in the process, I know I can pull out my mobile phone and call 9-1-1 and the ambulance will find me, thanks to GIS.